The forestry commission

Unlike many other transport companies this enterprise not only operates and manages its fleet of vehicles and equipment, but in some areas also has to build the roads on which they run.

Wales and Ireland. The creation of the new authority was a direct result of the difficulties which the country» had faced in meeting the demand for timber during the First World War. The country’s forests had been declining since the Middle Ages and ever increasing demands for timber had resulted in the forested areas reducing to only 5% of the land area. The outbreak of war resulted in difficulties with imported timber and by 1916 the Acland Committee had been set up to consider the most appropriate way of developing woodland resources. It was this Committee which recommended the creation of a new state organisation to plan a programme of reafforestation to meet the future needs for timber.

With timber stocks being so badly depleted, the Commission was given the freedom to acquire land all over the country» and to embark on a programme of extensive tree planting, with the first trees being planted on December 8, 1919, at Eggesford Forest in Devon. The country» was split into 10 divisions with 140 staff undertaking supervisory» and land working duties, and a further 59 staff were based at the finance and administration centres set up In London and Edinburgh. With agricultural land being relatively cheap vast tracts of land were acquired and planted with conifers although even at this early stage of the operation there were concerns being voiced over the blanket planting of conifers. The Commission responded by agreeing to plant native hardwood species such as oak along the plantation edges and alongside any access roads.

The Commission estates continued to increase and in 1934 there were 909,000 acres under management of which 316,000 acres were plantation fir trees with the remainder being existing woodland which had been brought under the control of the Commission.

A policy of ‘rural re-settlement’ had been developed with the creation of smallholdings in the forest areas which were designed to encourage skilled timber workers to settle in the area close to their wor1<. Those occupying the 10 acre smallholdings would also be provided with at least 150 days work in the forests each year and the scheme certainly proved to be a great success. Existing farm cottages In those areas were renovated and new cottages were built and the numbers steadily increased until the early 1930s when progress was firstly slowed by the economic depression and the creation of new smallholdings was effectively ended by the beginning of the war in 1939.

War work

With the outbreak of the Second World War the Commission was divided into two with the Forest Management Department continuing with the normal forestry activities while the Timber Supply Department dealt with the specific war demands for timber. Responsibility for the home timber supply remained with the Commission until 1941 when the Ministry of Supply assumed control. The demand for timber during the war led to large scale felling of the mature woodlands both in areas managed by the Commission and also on private estates.

Thousands of acres of woodland were cleared during this time and the number of people employed by the Commission increased to over 14,000.

The ‘industry1 was labour intensive with trees being cut using hand saw and axe, and felled timber being removed by horse teams. There was no mechanised planting and in remote areas such as the Scottish Highlands and Northern England planting was all done by hand and the few vehicles in use were mostly tractors.

While the creation of new smallholdings had ended, the Commission still needed a skilled workforce on site and a policy of house building began, and by 1955 some 2688 forest workers cottages had been built in various parts of the country. The planting of new forests in the 1920s had only required a small number of men to tend to the new plantations but as these areas of woodland were now coming to maturity, felling and logging activities would require a larger on-site workforce.

This ‘social’ element of the Commission forestry policy culminated in 1958 when they owned a total of 4627 properties. These included the creation of small villages and communities in some of the larger forest areas although some more ambitious village building projects were abandoned due to financial constraints in the 1960s and 70s. By the early 1970s some of the houses had already been sold on the open market and the Commission was encouraged by the government to undertake a large scale disposal of the remaining properties along with parcels of surplus land. The effect of this social policy on the upland areas of the country should not be underestimated, as the building of these hamlets and small villages resulted in the creation of communities in areas which would otherwise be deserted valleys and many continue to thrive to this day.

Road building

During the first 20 years of the Commission’s activities the primary concern was the establishment of plantations to replenish and increase the home-grown stocks of timber. Rough access tracks suitable for horse teams and tractors were sufficient for the early years of plantation management but as the forest matured a programme of rotational felling was developed. Having acquired the land and planted their first crop the harvesting of the trees would not be the end of the story as cleared areas would be immediately replanted. The requirement was for more permanent access roads and by 1945 a comprehensive road building programme was initiated and by the early 1960s around 400 miles of new forest access roads were being constructed annually.

Transport requirements also developed and while horse teams, tractors and ex-Army four- wheel drive vehicles were initially used to move timber from the forests to a sawmill or processing plants, the need for more specialised transport and machinery arose. The 1960s saw what could be termed a mechanical revolution take place with the chain saw replacing the axe and the crosscut saw, the horses were disappearing, the old stables being converted for use as garages to house the increasing number of tractors, Land Rovers and plant. There were also social changes with regard to landscape management and conservation with a growing awareness of the use of forests as leisure amenities and the public were given the ‘right to roam’ on the Commission’s forests.

The move away from the use of small local mills to larger and more centralised processing plants meant that timber was now being hauled longer distances. In 1965 a large paper-mill was opened at Corpach near Fort William, and the Forestry Commission was supplying 200,000 tons of timber for pulping each year. The timber was brought in from all parts of Scotland by road and rail, while additional supplies also came by sea. In a reflection of changing times within the industry» the state-of-the-art complex opened in the mid-Sixties was destined to close in 1981.

By 1964 the Forestry Commission in Scotland was running a specialised transport fleet of around 600 vehicles which included all- terrain Land Rovers, fuel tankers, tippers and construction vehicles, and plant and machinery» transporters. The fleet included Albion,

Bedford, B M C, Dodge, ERF and Ford lorries — in fact examples of most of the British marques carried the Forestry Commission colours. Out of a total of 625 vehicles in the fleet some 124 were 5-6cu yard tippers which in the main were involved in road construction and maintenance work. For timber extraction a number of the vehicles were fitted with Hiab and Tico hydraulic cranes, and while there v/ere Forestry Commission vehicles used to move loads of timber it was becoming more usual for independent hauliers to be contracted for this type of work. Most of the Commission vehicles and plant worked within the forest environment, with long distance timber haulage a largely secondary function supported by contractors.

The modern age

By the early 1980s the Forestry Commission was managing close on 4Vi million acres of forests and woodland all across the UK and was responsible for the provision of good quality B or C class roads to access the areas for timber extraction. Felled timber would be cut to lengths stipulated by the various timber companies working with the Commission and the cut logs would be stored in piles along the edge of the access roads at marked collection areas. This operation has changed little In the past 30 years and today the bright yellow signs displayed at Forestry Commission plantations warn that timber clearance operations are underway. Access to these sometime remote forest regions not only involves the construction of roadways but also the building of some quite substantial bridges to cross rivers and valleys requiring the Commission, on occasion, to undertake some seriously complex civil engineering projects.

While most of the forest access roads are C class with gravel surface, a visit to the largest planted forest in Europe at Kieider is a good example of the ‘modern’ face of the Forestry Commission. In the Kieider Forest in Northumberland you really cannot see the wood for the trees and the dense fir plantations in this area cover around 200 square miles. However, the development of the area as not only an important area for timber production but also fcr the local leisure industry means that some parts of the Kieider Forest are open to the public and are easily accessed. The large reservoir, Kieider Water, now provides watersports facilities, and there are holiday homes which provide visitors with a base to explore the area using the network of trails and paths. The roads into the area really are first class and these may well be some of the longest stretches of Tarmac in the UK which don’t have any potholes.

However, despite the attractions for the visiting tourist It should not be forgotten that this Is a managed commercial forest providing valuable timber for industrial use, and providing many jobs in an area which has little in the way of other large scale industry. While the swathes of open moorland created by newly felled trees may be viewed by some as scars on the rolling green landscape this is rotational timber cropping on a large scale and as soon as an area is cleared it will be replanted.

The 1980s would come to be regarded as a period of change and certainly the Commission had to face up to some serious challenges.

The economic recession led to the closure of the Ccrpach pulp mill along with other mills at Bristol and Ellesmere Port. A strident environmental lobby was becoming more critical of the Commission’s lack of environmental awareness and in 1987 the ‘Michael Fish Hurricane’ decimated large areas of woodland In the south of the country. However, the Commission responded well to these challenges and its action on clearance work and replanting after the storm damage was well received. By the 1990s the Commission had also responded to the environmental concerns and had become committed to what was being termed ‘multi¬purpose forestry*. They were working tov wards maintaining a careful balance between the demands of commercial timber production and conservation and recreation.

Road haulage

By the mid 1990s new additions to the fleet of vehicles included five new Fodens powered by Perkins engines. Two of these were Foden 4000 series heavy haulage 6×4 tractors and were primarily used for the transportation of tree harvesting and construction equipment. The two tractors were fitted with Perkins 400 diesel engines and Eaton tandem bogies and were usually paired with Andover low loader trailers. The other three Fodens bought in 1996 were Perkins engined 3000 Series 8×4, two of them being tippers while the remaining vehicle was a flatbed with a hooklift.

Ninety years ago forests like Kielder would have seen trees cut by hand, logs hauled out by horse team or perhaps a tractor but today the work of the Forestry Commission is supported by their Mechanical Engineering Services unit which Is now the largest provider of forestry machines in the country. The current fleet comprises 1700 cars and vans. Until 1997 any replacement vehicles, plant or machinery» was funded by the Forestry Commission as a capital resource but since then fleet renewal has seen a progressive move to leasing and most of the new vehicles and larger machines are now leased.

Most of the specialised harvesting and log carrying plant is now bought from Scandinavian manufacturers. During the past 10 years the ‘in-house’ heavy commercial vehicle fleet has now been replaced by the use of contract vehicles and the Commission no longer operates its own fleet of tippers and heavy haulage vehicles. The last of the Foden Alphas were sold off quite recently which brought to an end the Commission’s direct involvement with heavy haulage.

The current fleet of plant and machinery includes excavators, graders, rollers and shovels which are operated by Forestry CivilEngineering, the civil engineering arm of the Commission, which has been in existence in various different guises since the 1950s. The fleet is employed to maintain the existing network of 7500 miles of forest roadways and tracks and they handle the construction of around 100 miles of new roads each year as well as refurbishment of about 25% of the existing road network. This dedicated engineering facility contrasts quite markedly with the formative years of the Commission’s work when the largely dirt roads and unmade tracks were carved through the forest using tractors and a small number of crawlers.

Today the Forestry Commission is a rather different beast when compared with its fairly straightforward ‘tree planting operation’ in 1919. As far as its transport fleet is concerned the years have seen a revolution from ‘horse and hand’ to the widespread use of advanced and sophisticated machinery. The area of forested land has increased from 5% to 13% and the Commission has been responsible for stopping the wholesale decline of Britain’s woodland. However, even with the environmental, conservation and recreational aspects of the Commission’s work today, it continues to be one of the largest transport companies in the country and it still has to build some of its own roads!

My thanks to the Forestry Commission Archives. Vauxhall Heritage Archive and David Riley at Still time for allowing the use of photographs from their collections.

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